Astronaut, military pilot, and educator, Neil Armstrong made history on July 20, 1969, by becoming the first man to walk on the moon.
In 1949, as part of his scholarship, Armstrong trained as a pilot in the Navy and two years later, served in the Korean War. He flew 78 combat missions during this military conflict. He left the service in 1952, and returned to college. A few years later, Armstrong joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which later became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). For this government agency he worked in a number of different capacities, including serving as a test pilot and an engineer. He tested many high-speed aircraft, including the X-15, which could reach a top speed of 4,000 miles per hour.
That same year, Armstrong joined the astronaut program. He and his family moved to Houston, Texas, and Armstrong served as the command pilot for his first mission, Gemini VIII. He and fellow astronaut David Scott were launched into the earth’s orbit on March 16, 1966. While in orbit, they were able to briefly dock their space capsule with the Gemini Agena target vehicle. This was the first time two vehicles had successfully docked in space. During this maneuver, however, they experienced some problems and had to cut their mission short. They landed in the Pacific Ocean nearly 11 hours after the mission’s start, and were later rescued by the U.S.S. Mason.
At 10:56 PM, Armstrong exited the Lunar Module. He said, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” as he made his famous first step on the moon. For about two and a half hours, Armstrong and Aldrin collected samples and conducted experiments. They also took photographs, including their own footprints.
Returning on July 24, 1969, the Apollo 11 craft came down in the Pacific Ocean west of Hawaii. The crew and the craft were picked up by the U.S.S. Hornet, and the three astronauts were put into quarantine for three weeks.
Before long, the three Apollo 11 astronauts were given a warm welcome home. Crowds lined the streets of New York City to cheer on the famous heroes who were honored in a ticker-tape parade. Armstrong received numerous awards for his efforts, including the Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Space Medal of Honor.
Helping out at a difficult time, Armstrong served as vice chairman of the Presidential Commission on the space shuttle Challenger accident in 1986. The commission investigated the explosion of the Challenger on January 28, 1986, which took the lives of its crew, including school teacher Christa McAuliffe.
Death & Legacy
Even in his final years, Armstrong remained committed to space exploration. The press-shy astronaut returned to the spotlight in 2010 to express his concerns over changes made to the U.S. space program. He testified in Congress against President Barack Obama’s decision to cancel the Constellation program, which included another mission to the moon. Obama also sought to encourage private companies to get involved in the space travel business and to move forward with more unmanned space missions.
Taking this new decision, Armstrong said, would cost the United States its leadership position in space exploration. “America is respected for its contributions it has made in learning to sail on this new ocean. If the leadership we have acquired through our investment is simply allowed to fade away, other nations will surely step in where we have faltered. I do not believe that would be in our best interests,” he told Congress, according to a report on NewsHour.
Armstrong underwent a heart bypass operation in August 2012. A few weeks later, on August 25, 2012, at the age of 82, Neil Armstrong died of complications resulting from cardiovascular procedures in Cincinnati, Ohio. He was survived by his second wife, Carol, in Indian Hill, Ohio, and his two sons from his first marriage. He and his first wife divorced in 1994.
News of Armstrong’s death quickly spread around the world. President Obama was among those offering their condolences to his family and sharing their remembrances of the late space pioneer. “Neil was among the greatest of American heroes—not just of his time, but of all time,” Obama said, according to the Los Angeles Times. His Apollo 11 colleague Buzz Aldrin said that “I know I am joined by millions of others in mourning the passing of a true American hero and the best pilot I ever knew. My friend Neil took the small step but giant leap that changed the world and will forever be remembered as a landmark moment in human history,” according to CBS News.